Piping from GNU Screen to GNU Emacs

I’m continually discovering nifty new features of GNU Screen, and I’ve taken advantage of one of them to fix one of my long-standing annoyances with what’s otherwise a nearly-perfect piece of software – the rather awkward scroll-back buffer.

Here’s a method for essentially using Emacs as the scroll-back buffer (though convenient paste behaviour will have to come later):

First, create a named pipe in your home directory:

mkfifo ~/.screen.fifo

Then place the following shell script somewhere in your $PATH, calling it e.g. read-screen-fifo.sh:


emacsclient -n -t -e '(shell-command "cat ~/.screen.fifo" "*screenfifo*")' &
#sleep 0.5
screen -X eval "hardcopy -h $HOME/.screen.fifo"
screen -X screen -t hardcopy 0 emacsclient -t -e '(switch-to-buffer "*screenfifo*")' -e '(goto-char (point-max))'

Then place the following binding in your .screenrc:

bind E exec read-screen-fifo.sh

Now, pressing your screen prefix key (C-a by default, back-tick for me) then E will result in screen opening an emacsclient frame containing the entire contents of the initial window’s scroll-back buffer.

Note that commented-out sleep – if Emacs is a bit slow off the mark reading from the fifo, screen can get very angry and appear to hang (albeit recoverable by reattaching); so you may want to give it a split-second to catch up. Also, I discovered that screen is also very picky about what it lets you run inside an eval, so watch out (hence this all being done with shell scripts). This may be because screen will refuse to write to the fifo until there’s another program already reading from it – this is different from the behaviour of, say, cat.

Bonus screen trick I discovered in the course of this: put bind R source ~/.screenrc in your .screenrc to give yourself a way of reloading screen without the need for a restart (came in very handy when working out the above – I actually managed to completely crash Emacs three times, but Screen only tended to hang, in a recoverable way).

Dunhuang, Day 1

I started the day off early, having promised to visit the Mogao caves by lunchtime. To accomplish this, I had to take a bus back into Dunhuang, and then find the famous green bus tha takes you directly to the caves – I was sure I’d found the right place, but not seeing any bus I wndered into Charley Johng’s Information Café to have some pancakes for breakfast and to check whence the bus actually left. The kind lady pointed out the green bus that was waiting practically under my nose (the other side of the road), and I boarded it around 9 am. There I met the same friendly Canadian people from the train the day before, with whom I went round the caves when we arrived.

We needed an English language tour, but received conflicting information from the staff at the entrance abotu when one might be leaving. We definitely, however, were required to rid ourselves of our bags, and anything even slightly resembling a camera (they get very jumpy here about photography, apparently including steep fines for violations). Eventually we were instructed to join onto a tour that had almost finished, and when the guide had taken the group round the little museum adjoining the caves and said goodbye to the main part of the group, she continued on with the three of us to show us the caves we’d missed – she was very knowledgeable, and we had her all to ourselves, which was good. She was also apparently curious about any parallels to the caves in places to do with Western religions, which there are: each cave was essentially funded by a rich family (Dunhuang being full of people who’d enriched themselves thanks to its prime position on the silk road), who would pay the monks to do some more painting and sculpting in order to honour some deceased relative or similar; much like the side-chapels paid for by noble families in European cathedrals.

There are over 700 caves (out of an original 1300+), out of which a handful are opened to tourists at any one time (the interesting upshot being that you will see almost completely different things each time you visit) – though a tour always includes the three giant Buddhas, some of the largest in the world. One is lying down; one has a larger head and upper body than would be natural, so the proportions look correct when standing at the feet and looking up; one was carved from the top down, and you can see a little window right at the top where the original sculptors first started to dig (some of the ‘caves’ are artificial, some are natural).


Part of the façade of the caves, concreted over to prevent erosion of the sandstone (and so heavy security doors can be put in place); the fronts of the caves would originially have had some wooden superstructure, staircases etc.

At lunchtime I managed, after some confusion, to find the taxi containing the three people with whom I would be taking my afternoon excursion. After stopping for lunch and batteries, we set off into the desert. The first notable thing outside the city is the vast arrays of solar panels, which supposedly provide all the required electrical power for the entire area, all year round (I’m slightly sceptical about this).


Rows and rows of solar panels

Our next couple of stops were quite close to the city: first, a lone mudbrick watchtower which once was attached to the archaic, Han dynasty Great Wall. Looking back towards the city you can see some rather exciting ancient architecture; in fact, it’s just a film set.


Tower and surroundings


Tower close-up


Replica of an ancient walled city

A bit further up the road is a little oasis in a depression formed between some cliffs on one side, and an imposing dried-up cliff-lind river valley on the other; in the cliffs are a few more Mogao-style Buddhist caves, and in the oasis is a rather nice little park full of the inhabitants of Dunhuang out having picnics etc.

The intermittent streams and the river which run through the desert nearby are fed by melt-water from the Tibetan foothills and the Tian Shan (apparently).


Part of the cliffs which surround the oasis


The river valley on the other side


Looking back into the park

After a brief stop to look at some sculptures of camels laid out as though they were in a caravan (this signfied the start of a national park area), we arrived at the great silk road gate, another relic of the Han-era Great Wall which once ran all the way through the desert in this area. The gate is a gigantic structure, quite literally in the middle of nowhere: we were at least 50 kilometres out into the desert from Dunhuang at this point. Next to it was a small depression with some water and vegetation, which is presumably the reason the original road ran through the desert in this particular location.


The great gate


Close-up of the gate

The next stop along the increasingly rough road was an actual section of the Great Wall. Much like the more recent length near Jiayuguan, this was all mud brick and straw – the original was presumably a little taller, but apart from that it was remarkably well-preserved.


Close-up of wall section


Wall with surroundings

After another couple of hours’ driving, now at least 100 kilometres away from any human settlement, we finally arrived at the day’s final destination: what the Chinese refer to as their ‘Grand Canyon’, but what they must really mean is their Monument Valley, as there isn’t a canyon in sight, but rather a very large area (some 400km²) filled with various rock formations sandblasted into all sorts of interesting shapes.

We had a short wait in a visitor centre, then transferred in a coach for the actual tour of the rocks, along with a large group of agéd Chinese tourists. There were various stops, including a long one at the end to attempt to take pictures of the sunset over the desert. On the way back the young female tourguide led the entire bus in song, and played various games with everyone.


Some bits of rock


General overview of the area

Back in the taxi, we stopped briefly to have a look at the glorious view of the nightsky afforded us by the fact that we were hundreds of miles from civilisation. Unfortunately we didn’t stop long enough for me to work out the necessary adjustments to the time, date, latitude and longitude to make my ephemeris software (XEphem) useful in identifying the celestial objects on display. Also the drivers of the other taxis didn’t seem to understand why I might be annoyed that they had their headlights switched on and shining in our faces.

Back in Dunhuang, we stopped off at a market stall for a midnight barbecue – I was surprised how horrified everyone else was at my willingness to eat kebabs containing lumps of kidney and liver (I didn’t touch the intestine, of course). From there we went to yet another youth hostel owned by Charley Johng, though in tis sone we stayed in moderately unconfortable dormitories, and the shower/toilet room was a bit disgusting.

Train, Jiayuguan→Dunhuang

The hard seat carriage at the front of the train (to which I, as an unreserved ticket holder, was directed) was not quite full, and remained that way throughout the journey, so I managed to hang onto my seat the whole way. Quite soon into the journey I struck up a ‘conversation’ with a friendly young man next to me – it mostly involved pointing and desperately looking for words in the guidebook – it turned out he was about 23 – and I showed him various pictures of my trip on my computer. He was fascinated by my computer, but also amazed that I didn’t have some sort of smartphone; in China, as soon as you have enough money, you go out and buy an iPhone/iPad/Android-based thing. I found a few funny videogame-related videos on my computer that we could have a good laugh at without requiring a common language. He also appreciated that most famous of episodes of Community, Modern Warfare, proof that the genius of that show transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. Or something.

Also fascinated by it all were the two schoolboys who came and sat opposite us. After a lot of curious peering at what I was doing, I made a valiant attempt to teach the two of them to program in Scheme, though they seemed to regard my function definitions more as puzzles where they would think of some inputs and then manually calculate the result that the function would churn out, comparing the answer to an invocation of the function with those arguments, rather than as building blocks upon which to create further abstractions.

I also met a Canadian man, who was also interested in my computer (it is such a wonderful computer. I’ll never get tired of describing just how amazing its 800mhz ARMv7 processor and consequent impressive battery life is), and who I met again by chance the following day at the Mogao caves.

Dunhuang station looks like an Ancient Egyptian temple, but is miles out from the city, so I got a taxi to take me to my chosen place of residence, iself miles away from the city centre: the rather sleepy, charming, Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse. The proprietor owns a couple of café/hostel-type places around Dunhuang, and is the local organiser and know-it-all when it comes to camel treks etc.


The central courtyard of the guesthouse


The guesthouse’s goat and kids

He cooked me some lunch – rather a lot, in fact, as I hadn’t eaten all day – and I then went off on my own, spending the rest of the afternoon (a couple of hours) exploring the immediate vicinity. The guesthouse is right up against the dramatic boundary between the oasis-like shrubbery and the dunes, though unfortunately the dunes in this part are fenced off with stiff penalties for trespassing (¥300 or so). Fortunately it was relatively easy to follow the edge of the dunes round for a couple of kilometres, even past the limit of the guesthouse’s own land.


The path following the dunes’ boundary round for quite a distance


The sort of flora immediately adjacent to the desert.


A bit of oasis jutting out into the desert

That evening, after another delicious meal had been cooked for me, I chatted to the other two guests: Janna, a geography postgrad from Germany, and Shiny, a Chinese-American from San Francisco; the latter convinced me to join her and two young Chinese people she’d met that day at Mogao on a taxi hire the following afternoon and evening (they needed four people) to take them to see some of the more out of the way sights around Dunhuang – there are several amazing sights which are around 100 kilometres out into the desert. I agreed to start my trip round Mogao fairly early in the morning (but not to join them on their attempt at to see the sunrise over the desert at 4 am!).

Jiayuguan, Day 1

I slept and slept the following morning, finally managing to contact the taxi driver on his mobile at about 11, who sounded himself like he’d just been woken up by my call anyway (or maybe he came for me earlier and then went back to bed, but with the communication barrier I’ll never know). He turned up about ten minutes later in his personal car, with the rest of his family – wife and small son, and we set off towards the first of he sights, attempting to communicate with each other with a combination of gesticulation and the very limited phrasebook at the back of the guidebook (that I’d come all the way from Jilin, etc.).

The first place was a sort of underground gallery with a balcony sticking out of the vertical cliff side of a valley over a raging river below. From this point I coulld see the next attractions a few hundred metres downstream – the ruined tower at the end of the spur of the Great Wall which juts away from the main fortress to the West, and represents the actual end of the wall. Next to this is a little reconstruction of a desolate military outpost, with some replica tents, wooden siege weapons and a very scary rope bridge over the river to some mud buildings on the other side.


Tower at the end of the wall


Replica fort


Rope bridge


Looking back at the first place (the balcony)


Overview of the whole attraction (edge of the Tibetan plateau in background)

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Some sculptures bit further up the river (fort in background)

After this place I was unfortunately dumped by my current driver (and family), and was given to someone else (this time in a real taxi) – it wasn’t an attempt to get more money out of me though, I still paid the new person the right amount at the end of the day.

Next place was an example of one of the many Han-era underground tombs that dot the countryside, with the insides covered in fairly intricate cave paintings (photography wasn’t permitted, by secret ones aren’t particularly great). There was an adjoining museum with some recovered pottery and decent explanatory text, along with a helpful map of the area.


Rather attractive little museum


Map; main fortress in centre, spur with tower by river to the bottom

The next stop was a ‘water gate’, a pretty grand gate in the great wall in a little valley, with the gate itself and a decent length of the wall around pretty well restored in the 1980s. I spend about half an hour walking quite a way along the top of the wall, up the right hand side of the valley (extremely tiring in the horrendous heat).

The area immediately around the gate has been turned, as the guidebook sayss, into a rather environmentally inappropriate ‘park’, with streams irrigating an expanse of lushous greenery, at the expense of having a nice bleak view over the desert towards the city. Fortunately there are still other directions you can look in to see the vastness of the desert.


Gate from the side


How far I managed to walk


Into the Taklamakan Desert (but facing a bit south)


Back towards the city of Jiayuguan, with the reconstructed wall that I’d climbed up, and the tourist park, in the foreground

The driver then took me to visit the famous fortress itself, and I spent a good couple of hours wandering around; there are plenty of Chinese tourists at this time of year and a few other Westerners (the only others I saw in Jiayuguan), but the place wasn’t crowded by any means.


A lake in front of the fortress


An internal gate

Once inside the fortress, there is a large area containing not a lot, where presumably some of the city used to be situated. As you move towards the back, there is another sset of gates and walls, and you are into the military part of the fortress. There are in fact another two or three sets of walls and gates (not concentric; they are just in your way as you move towards the back), and then finally a large gate leading out of the back, with a fancy name like The Last Watchtower under Heaven or similar (supposedly named for its combination of beauty and bleakness).


Another internal gatehouse


The back gate, looking back towards the fortress


Cannon on the outer wall


Another view of the outer wall


The barracks from above


The main courtyard, with some flag-wavers practising, and an archery range

Just outside the fortress was the brilliant Museum of the Great Wall, transplanted here from another part of China a few years ago. In a very modern building, it has displays (and wonderful scale models) of parts of the wall from all along its length, including very obscure places where bits and pieces of run-down wall still exist despite restoration work being very sparse. It ended with a long photo gallery of major Chinese and foreign leaders who have visited Jiayuguan.

The driver took me back to the Jiaotong Hotel, though I got him to make a detour to the train station in a wild attempt to get a ticket to Dunhuang for the following day – amazingly, it worked, and I bought bought an unreserved (no seat) ticket for a train that left at 7.41 am.

I ventured across the street from the hotel to a supposedly good value (and high quality) restaurant; and good it was, though all the staff looked about fifteen years old and couldn’t stop giggling at me…I do look very weird after all.

Train, Xining→Lanzhou→Jiayuguan

After my skillful ppurchase of a ticket the day before, I successfully boarded the 9.57 am train with my hard seat ticket. The journey was all along the Yellow River valley, past a succession of heavy industry plants, into the unpleasantly hot, sticky and polluted Lanzhou – where the guidebook warned me not to stay any longer than necessary. I spent the second half of the journey mildly amused by the antics of the small naughty boy opposite, but not so amused by the attempts of the father to beat him into submission with the bottom of an empty water bottle (the small boy just found it funny however, seeing how he could through his toys across the table towards my side before he got whacked on the head with the bottle).

I arrived in Lianzhou at about 1 pm, where it was already unpleasantly hot. After going into a nearby KFC, wandering around like an idiot, and exiting when I was unable to find a free seat, I resolved to brave the extraordinarily long queues for tickets – at least 20 people at each of about 15 booths. After a good half hour I finally got to the front, tried out my rudimentary train-ticket-ordering-Chinese (“Wo xiang yao piao…Jiayuguan?”), and to my amazement was told that there was a train to Jiayuguan leaving at 3.15 that very afternoon. So, armed with the ticket, I set off into the centre of Lianzhou in the heat, determined to find the pleasant, cool (in temperature and disposition) coffee shop recommended in the guidebook. After a trek of about 2 km, I discovered it to be full of builders and dust, with not a customer nor any coffee in sight. The next hour was spent wandering around the centre of the city in increasingly wier, more frustrated circles, looking for the right sort of retaurant for what I wanted – not so fancy that I would be spending hours having a gigantic meal, and not just food off the street.

After an unnecessarily long search I collapsed into a restaurant some distance away, with he waiters looking at me somewhat bemusedly. I ordered two dishes, with rice, and attempted to get them to understand what I assumed was the generic word for “sweet fizzy drink”, which did evenually get me some Sprite. Though for some reason they confisated my nice fanch chopsticks and gave me boring throwaway wooden ones. Clearly I was not worthy (despite the fact that my chopstick technique is now incredible). The dishes I ordered turned out to be:

  • lots and lots of little slices of disturbingly cheesy (but tasteless) tofu-like substance, with raw spring onions
  • much nicer (but incredibly spicy) – bits of pork, with the entire rest of the dish made up of green chili peppers

I did almost finish it all, then left, the waiters still giving me very bemused looks for some reason.

The ride to Jiayuguan was much more pleasant, with the landscape gradually turning more and more arid, and finally to a sort of semi-desert. I briefly struck up conversation with a nice English-speaking Chinese lady, who assured m that the train would get into Jiayuguan at around 10 pm – enough time, I assumed, to find a place to stay (at a push). I had a (hard) bunk bed on this journey, but I didn’t use it, preferring to stay on the same window seat the entire journey, absorbed in my current book (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Danial Dennett). However, as the hours ticked by, I became more and more worried – my ticket was re-swapped back for my plastic token at about 10.15, but the train didn’t arrive until about 11.30. I finally wandered out of the station into the hands of an at least mildly non-shifty-looking taxi driver, who drove me to the Jiaotong (“traffic”) hotel, which, although it was the one from the guidebook I had already decided on, he probably still managed to get the commission that taxi drivers reportedly get for taking tourists to particular hotels, judging by the help he gave me. He kindly came into the lobby with me, and then, when my greatest fears were realised – not having enough cash on hand to pay for even one night plus the room deposit – drove me to the nearest Zhongguo Yintang (Bank of China) to get some more money out. This was in fact the last cash machine that worked for me in the whole of China, as I gradually moved further West.

We sorted out something about going on a tour the following day – about ¥300 for hiring him for a whole day (which was rather necessary – the sights of Jiayuguan are rather widely spaced out in the surrounding semi-desert). I wasn’t quite sure on the time we agreed in the morning; it could’ve been as eearly as 8 am, but I didn’t manage to stick to this schedule, as you will read about tomorrow. In my hotel room I ate the second and last of my Beijing-provided pot noodles, this one containing a nice big green tea-infused boiled egg.

Xining, Day 2

Today was great success! Successfully found post office (not through doors which say ‘China Post’, but in fact through doors which say ‘Postal Bank of China’ and up elevator), used super-Chinese-skills to buy ticket to Lanzhou, and finally made enough sense of map to find the point of departure for Kumbum Monastery (Kumbum Lamasery/tá ěr’sí). I hired a taxi to take me there and back, and spend the entire afternoon at the monastery.

Kumbum monastery is the second most important Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Tibet (after Labrang), and the Dalai Lama lived here for a while. The way to the monastery offers some good views of hills, lakes and distant mountains, but the monastery itself is rather squeezed in a valley along with the town that merges seamlessly into it. The very front of the monastery has been…renovated…into a rather imposing concrete park, with large pillars and benches.


The main entrance at the front of the monastery


A door in the main entrance

The first sight inside is the ‘Eight Dagobas’, which are really miniatures (compared to the one in Beijing). There then follows a succession of little building complexes, each containing a temple and several courtyards. The whole thing is stretched out down the main road (with a bit off some side roads), and each courtyard is accessible from the road through a large gate set in the wall.


Eight Dagobas


Which way to go next? Presumably ‘This Way’.


The temples are wooden in large part, and thanks to the renovations of the 1980s are covered in fire-fighting equipment, and handy informative posters on how to use it featuring happy smiling monks.

The majority of people there are well-off looking Chinese tourists in groups of 2-10, each with a very officious (and generally young female) Chinese Ministry of Tourism tour-guide who strictly enforces the rules about photography (once through each gate, none whatsoever is allowed, not even in the open-air courtyards. The very occasional people I saw being shown around by monks were presumably family members of the monks themselves. Each gateway had a little ticket machine, normally with a monk generally sitting nearby, but no actual barrier – and I get the impression the monks don’t really care. All the money from the ticket sales at the front of the monastery go to the Ministry of Tourism, and, while there are large numbers of monks – almost as many as tourists, seemingly, and many of the around my age – they don’t have much to do with the general shepherding around of the tourists. In fact, the other notable feature of the monastery was that there seems to be a game whereby people find as many places as possible around the monastery to stuff bits of money as donations, presumably so that it goes straight to the monks rather than funnelled through the government. Literally every statue, decorative rug, arrangement of candles etc. in every room is covered in some way with banknotes.


A monk at work


Monks’ living quarters and motorbikes


Another courtyard of living quarters


Another courtyard, with a temple

I played a game myself – time the entrance and exit of the official tour-guides to each room so as to give myself a window of opportunity to take illicit photos. I managed this in a handful of cases.

One of the temples was particularly modern, having been completed in 2006 thanks to the donation of ¥x million by Mr So-and-so of Hong Kong – the wood carving around the courtyard of this one is particularly exquisite, and the statue of the Buddha inside particularly large.

My other photograph-taking strategy was too climb halfway up the adjacent hill so as to be able to look down into areas where I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to take photos.


Several large temples


More monastery buildings, and the town


Another temple


Incredibly subtly taken photo


And another one


This photo taken literally by watching the speed at which tour-guides were making their way through this temple, and hiding off to one side

In addition, large parts of the monastery are inaccessible at the moment anyway, thanks to building work taking place in the off-season (apparently mostly re-paving roads).


And another one


The temple entrance from the town


Prayer wheels by the entrance

On the way back the driver kindly stopped so I could attempt to get some pictures of the snow-capped foothills of the Tibetan plateau.


Mountain range

In the evening I couldn’t be bothered to find a proper restaurant, so I bought some dodgy cold (but hopefully pre-cooked) food out of the window of a room facing on to a main road – including a giant, spicy, greasy sausage.

Xining, Day 1

I began my exploration of the city today in earnest, though a little closer to lunchtime than I was hoping. I was half-expecting to find my way to the roundabout where the taxis to Kumbum monastery set off, but within ten minutes I was hopelessly lost. Not unable to find my way back to the youth hostel – months of playing Minecraft have honed my skills at remembering how to retrace my steps precisely in order to find my way back to safety (…before it gets dark and the monsters come out. I didn’t quite get to the point of leaving torches stuck to the walls of Xining’s buildings though) – but with no idea where I was on the map (despite the fact that the youth hostel was marked clearly on said map). I did manage to buy some typical Chinese savoury pancake and fried dough twists for lunch, however.

I wandered a couple of kilometres down a main road, then back again, then round and round, until I found a rather attractive mosque. Believing it to be the Dongguang Great Mosque, I entered the courtyard, then cautiously approached the main building itself. Taking off my shoes, I stepped just inside the doorway to get a better look (there was a nice chandelier outside). In the courtyard there were a couple of rather attractive porcelain-tiled ‘pillars’. Also, lots of people milling around – all of them noticeably Hui (a distinct ethnic grouping, though sometime just used as a catch-all term for Chinese muslims), and most of them old men with long beards. Some were seated by the entrance, talking in Arabic (I think), and one asked me a couple of questions (in English) along the lines of “What country are you from? Are you a Muslim?”. I tried to remember some of my Arabic, but only managed a “Salaamu 9alaykum”.


Column outside fake-mosque

After yet another foray in the wrong direction, I finally came across the real Dongguan Great Mosque, a 14th century building which is the grandest mosque in north-western China (which is where the muslims traditionally are – the Uyghurs, Hui, lots of other minor ethnicities etc.), and the only place in the city where I came across other Westerners. There were a couple of rooms with displays, such as a gigantic model of the temple-complex at Mecca. In the main courtyard a prayer-session was going on with a few hundred participants, so I crept around the back to have a look at some of the architecture (this was allowed; the whole place was filled with signs from the Chinese Ministry of Tourism detailing what sort of behaviour was and was not permitted. It seems that all the money from the entrance tickets etc. goes to the ministry, though they do appear to spend lots towards renovation and upkeep). The buildings are a curious mix of classical Islamic architecture, Chinese-temple-esque buildings, and some more European things.


Dongguang Great Mosque (Islamic-style architecture)


Dongguang Great Mosque (European-style architecture)


Dongguang Great Mosque (Chinese-style architecture)


Rules for life

After that I wandered around a bit, eating my lunch, before hailing a taxi to drive me to the regional museum, which is located on the decidedly non-central Xining Square. There’s a pretty good collection of artifacts, from the neolithic to Chinese dynasties up to a few hundred years ago, with a fair number of captions in English (downsides to the museum: the whole building is permeated with a weird smell, and the floor is incredibly squeaky). Particularly interesting items: Yuan-era paper money, bronze teapots and other crockery (Ming and other dynasties), all sorts of elaborate headgear (Tibetan, Mongolian, etc.), and lots of smaller decorative items from about 500AD onwards. Inevitably, any account of the expansion of the Chinese empire into lands to the west is framed as ‘improving the harmonious mixing of peoples’.


Xining Square


…and the museum

I walked all the way back to the hostel, making a detour through a park on one side of the river, filled to bursting with elderly Hui (and other) people, doing various things including

  • rubbing their backs against trees
  • congregating in huge crowds around groups of (nastily amplified) traditional musicians
  • playing mahjong and other games.

Incidentally, the driving in Xining is even more civilised than Beijing, and haphazard pedestrian-crossing is hindered by great big fences erected down the middle of most of the main roads. Chinese traffic follows the sensible rule of allowing right turns, even when the light is red…but ruins it by also allowing these turns when there is a pedestrian crossing in the way in the road they’re turning into.

In the evening I set off (walking) once again to find an exciting-sounding Tibetan restaurant (called Mindruk) that was all the way back by Xining Square. However, even when I resorted to attempting to match the characters for ‘Xining’ with signs outside the various restaurants I could see, I utterly failed to find it, instead opting for a low-key family-run establishment down a side road. There was nothing approaching an English (or picture) menu, so the owner helped me match things against the food glossary in the guidebook – he also gave me yet another chopstick tutorial, though I’m convinced his technique is different from, say, Angel’s parents. His two small daughters (looked around 10-ish) eyed me extremely curiously while they were meant to be sitting there doing their homework (still in their tracksuit-uniforms), then finally practised their English numbers on me (with surprisingly good accents) when it was time to pay the bill. I took a taxi with a strangely intellectual-looking driver back to the hostel.

Train, Beijing→Xining

After a morning spent packing, receiving yet more gifts, and trying to avoid being booked into a ¥350-a-night hotel in Xining, I got a 24 hour sleeper train in the afternoon.


Tea-making contraption in Angel’s parents’ flat.


The bewildering array of snacks & sweets with which I was packed off by Angel’s parents

Each compartment had six bunks, in two stacks of three. I had a middle bunk which…was not designed for people my size. I couldn’t sit up, and could barely turn around (though it was partially my fault for sleeping with my rucksack). Getting in or out required extreme gymnastic contortions. Opposite each compartment were two folding seats and a tiny table near the window – these are, I assume, to be used by those non-miniature people in the upper bunks who want somewhere to sit during the day. In addition, in theory, the lower bunks are for ‘communal seating’ when people aren’t sleeping on them. Unfortunately there were many times when people from the lower bunks were sitting on the window seats…and I was too scared to go and sit on their beds just to spite them.

The rest of the day passed without much excitement; the scenery between Beijing and Xi’an isn’t terribly inspiring, so I spent the time reading the part of Einstein’s Relativity – The Special and General Theory that deals with trains, embankments and rays of light (pretty meta, I know). A kindly train guard helped me when I mysteriously got yet another nosebleed (I’ve had five since arriving in China – something to do with pollution? Or incredibly rough-textured tissues?).

The beds were surprisingly comfortable to sleep on, but I found it hard to get to sleep for several reasons:

  • The lights stayed on (and people stayed up) for a really long time into the night
  • Every time the train went over some points, or turned slightly, or even just repeatedly at random, there were several incredibly loud bangs – really really loud, like there was a cannon mounted underneath the carriage. Not much fun.
  • Incredibly repetitive jingles coming from the radio being played over the PA system – these did end in the evening, but started up again with extreme gusto in the morning.

I did attempt to take some pictures from the train window the following day, when the landscape became rather attractive, though everyone looked at me really strangely whenever I did so.


Mountainous landscape


Presumably the Yellow River, though I haven’t checked


Upon arrival at Xining (West) station, I had to fight my way through hordes of shifty-looking taxi drivers, though I eventually gave in and let one drive me to the city centre (for a rather steep ¥40 – the standard metered fare would be more like ¥20), where I found the rather wonderful Lete Youth Hostel. Perched on the 15th floor of a tower block, there are lovely views of much of the city – though this didn’t help at all with my map-reading the following day.


Panorama from top of youth hostel

http://blog.ugnus.uk.eu.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wpid-IMAG00131.jpg http://blog.ugnus.uk.eu.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wpid-IMAG00141.jpg

Having settled into a nice (if small) single room, and unpacked my main bag, I set off into the city at random (it was getting on for 4pm), with the vague hope of finding the Dongguan Great Mosque. However, I soon came upon a mountain with some temples up its side, so I decided to go on a hike to take a closer look.


What I saw from the road.

The path carried on going, up and up, past a bunch of {Confucian|Taoist|Buddhist} temples, and further on up the mountainside. The views of the city and surrounding country were getting nicer the higher I went, so I kept on going.


A bit higher up, looking back out.

Eventually I reached the top, to find the weird white tent-thing which you can see at the right of the third picture of the panorama above. I met a lost-looking Buddhist monk who asked me if I spoke Tibetan (I don’t), and then said he didn’t speak English (I was baffled too).


The plaza at the top. You can see the silhouette of the monk against the mountain opposite.

Hidden just over the rim of the mountain was what appeared to be more temples (and particularly attractive ones), though walking down that side it became more of a mystery.


More temples, past top of mountain

The whole temple area was surrounded by a green fence engraved with Arabic (and hence Islamic) calligraphy. It looked unfortunately closed, though, so I couldn’t investigate any further.


Gate into complex

Past the temples, and a café and car park, was a rather lovely little park, with lots of trees, ponds and pagodas – and lots of people milling around many of them Hui people in religious dress (or those little round hats, at least). There were also more good opportunities for views of the city.


Part of the little park


You should be able to see ice caps in the distance here (I could).


View back up to the temples and the white tent thing

I sat in the peace and quiet for a while, then went back up the mountain. The sun was about to set, so the light was such that the conditions were good for some more landscape photography.


Another view of the city


Yet another one


And more


When will this stop

I investigated the first lot of temples a little bit more on the way back down (the other side). There were certainly some Buddhist prayer flags (with Tibetan characters written on them).


Prayer flags (I don’t make these all artistic on purpose, I swear)


The alleyway leading down


A dog chained up in a temple courtyard

On my way back to the youth hostel (which I managed to find!), I passed several groups of old (apparently mostly Hui) men, who were gathered on the pavement around games of what looked like Mahjong (and possibly a few others). Xining supposedly has 36 different nationalities, composed mostly of Han Chinese, Hui (Chinese Muslims, broadly speaking) and, quoth the guidebook, “rather lost-looking Tibetans” – Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai province, and, despite being at the far eastern end of the province, is basically right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau (hence all the dramatic landscape). It has a population of 2.2 million, fairly small for a provincial capital. More on the city itself in tomorrow’s spiel, when I describe how totally lost I got. Back at the youth hostel I was lazy and ordered spaghetti bolognese for supper. I needed respite from all the weird stuff I’d been eating the past week!

Beijing, Day 2

People in China also get up nice and late on Sundays, it seems, so we had another brunch – noodly stuff, fried egg with normal (toasted) bread, and those fluffy white buns (which I don’t normally like, but are actually delicious when fried).

We set off to visit the extravaganza of grandeur and po-faced nationalism that is Tian’anmen Square, picking up Angel’s cousin along the way. Meanwhile, Angel’s father was very kindly buying a train ticket for me at the station.


Patriotic moving pictures for make benefit glorious PRC.


Apparently not satisfied with the majestic buildings and monuments that line the square, not to mention the view-ruining mausoleum containing creepified-Mao-remains (which thankfully I was spared), there are two gigantic screens (actual LCDs, not projections, as far as I could make out) blasting out views of appropriately picturesque/cultural views of China, with accompanying rousing choral music. I couldn’t find any cracked paving stones; the government must have replaced them all by now. The grand gates at either end of the square are quite attractive, however. We exited through the one closest to the Forbidden City.


Zhenyangmen & Qianmen Gate, at one end of Tian’anmen Square.


Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian’anmen) leading into the Forbidden City. Note that some of the policemen on guard are in plainclothes.

From that entry point there is a fairly long walk down an avenue lined with various tradespeople, beggars (Chinese beggars look particularly distraught and physically disabled, regrettably), trees (tautology alert) and even exercise grounds and parking space for the local security guards.


Some outlying areas of the Forbidden City were accessible, such as the court containing this sundial.

Later that afternoon we disappeared into the nearby Qianmen Dajie, in particular Dazhalan Lu, a surprisingly pretty well-preserved shopping district, complete with a working tram that runs the length of the street. We found a restaurant, supposedly just so we could sample Chinese ‘snacks’, but it rather ended up as yet another meal (at this point I don’t think I’m going to have to eat until I reach Kazakhstan) (update: indeed, I barely felt the slightest bit hungry after 24 hours on a train despite eating nothing except a single pot noodle). The first ‘snacks’ were some tasty fried fatty dough-balls covered in sugar, and some sort of weird bean mush (I preferred the former). This was accompanied by some nice ‘traditional’ refreshing fruit drink (my particular one was pear-flavoured).


Nice little shopping street.

The next selection was delicious lamb kebabs (presumably the Hui/Uyghur/whoever influence at work) and, in addition, one of the few things I’ve come across so far that I literally could not bring myself to eat. It was described as ‘soup with intestines and other organs’, and it smelt like…someone had left a rotting carcass under the table and forgotten about it for a week. The taste itself was worse. I picked out one tiny chunk with my chopsticks, forced myself to swallow it, almost threw up, and couldn’t get the taste out of the back of my throat for the next 12 hours. Angel’s cousin announced that he’d eaten this sort of thing every day for his entire childhood, and promptly finished mine off too. I was very impressed. Also horrified.


Tram line towards the Forbidden City.


…and a tram!

We wandered through the winding streets back towards Tian’anmen Square, to the rather fancy (and well-known) Lao She Teahouse, where we met Angel’s father once again. There I was taught the correct way to drink my tea, indicate I wanted it refilled (or not), etc. I was also introduced to the bewildering array of nibbles and sweetmeats of which, it turned out, I would be provided with a great big bag to take on the train.


Fanciness indeed


That evening Angel was going back to university (she had 5 weeks of term left, out of 18), so in preparation we were dropped off outside the campus. While she dumped her bags in her room, the cousin and I sat around in a lecture hall, trying to get onto the schools’ WiFi — this proved impossible, as, despite being unencrypted, there was clearly some sort of device (MAC) based filtering going on (I suppose it wouldn’t really surprise me if everyone had to register all their wireless devices with the authorities). So we went off in search of a swanky coffee place (Beijing is full of these, unlike Jilin, which has two: one which we sat in endlessly, and one which Ella opened). We found one under Angel’s family’s other flat.


Angel’s university

Thence we were picked up for a final evening meal, this time to experience Beijing (Mongolian) ‘hotpot’. A trough of constantly-boiling water is placed in the centre of the table, and raw food of your choice is dumped into it and left to cook for however long you want: the shredded ox stomach only requires five quick dunks into the water, whereas the thinly-sliced lamb is left in there for a few minutes (surprisingly, the stomach was completely fine for me). The overall effect is pretty much unlike all other ‘normal’ Chinese food: somewhat lacking in spices; instead, everything is dunked in your private bowl of tepid peanut-based sauce (to which can be added extra chilli, or other things). This meal also saw further development of my chopstick technique – mostly to aid the extraction of extremely slippery rice noodles from the boiling water (a combination of accurate stabbing, twisting, and slowly backing out is needed).

After the meal, I said my final fond goodbyes to Angel (and then her cousin), and returned home with her parents. (Note: It turns out I had in fact met her when I was 6 – there is photographic evidence – but neither of us remembered this at all!).


Hotpot in action


Waitress demonstrating the manufacture of rice noodles